Chapter 1: Lisanne
It’s kind of hard to do your hair in a power cut.
“Need some help?”
My mother stood in the doorway, barely lit by the sickly green of the emergency lights.
“Nonsense. Let me do it.”
The light above us flickered back on, but my mother sat down beside me anyway. She took the comb from my hand and started tugging at my hair.
“Are you excited?”
She pursed her lips, showing the tiny wrinkles around her mouth.
“That is not the attitude of an eighty on her interview day, darling.”
I stared at her for a second. Her dark silky hair reflected the light that flickered above us. My mother, the Historian, the eighty-seven, could never understand the knot of nerves in my stomach. I didn’t think she’d ever had a moment of doubt in her entire life.
“You must look perfect today.”
“Of course.” I didn’t even flinch when she ripped through the knots without pausing. The old comb had half its teeth missing. It had been my grandmother’s and I could never ask for a new one, even when the sharp edges bit into my scalp.
“Shall I tell you about when you were born?”
Mother laughed. It was a sweet sound, one I hardly heard anymore, and I leaned my arms on the dressing table. If it made her happy I didn’t mind her telling the story, even though I was hardly a child anymore.
“Well, your father and I always knew we only wanted one child. We could have had two – our genes gave us that choice, of course, but we only wanted one. So you were extra special.”
I nodded. All eighties were special, but it was nice to hear her say so.
“When you were born you screamed for the first ten minutes. What a fright it gave me. I thought they must have hurt you when they cut you out of my belly.”
I grimaced at the thought.
“As soon as you stopped hollering the nurse came in to take you for the grading. We were so nervous in the weighing chamber.” So powerful was this memory for her that my mother’s hands shook a little and the comb shuddered in its rhythm.
“Of course, you looked perfect. But there’s always the worry, there could have been something that hadn’t shown up on the scans. There hasn’t been less than an eighty in my family in generations, nor your father’s, but he was just as nervous. He couldn’t keep still, pacing up and down the delivery room. It was sweet really.”
“But you would have kept me anyway wouldn’t you?” I asked, as I had asked a hundred times before. And as always I told myself I imagined the slight hesitation in my mother’s reply.
“Of course darling, we keep anyone over a sixty. But isn’t it so much nicer to be an eighty.”
I smiled at her in the mirror. Of course she was right, but somehow I wished I hadn’t listened to the story, it was like picking at an itchy scab. It might leave a scar.
“So anyway, the Doctor came back with this wide smile and I knew everything was okay. He said you were an eighty-three, only four less than me. Eighty-three percent pure human. Your father muttered something about looking more like a late eighty, but of course that was just his pride in such a perfect daughter.” She kissed me on the top of my head. Suddenly the light flickered out again.
“Third time today,” my mother said quietly. I frowned in the dark. Maybe she was more nervous about my interview than she was letting on. She normally pretended the power cuts didn’t happen. We waited in the pitch dark for the light to return. I could hear the hum of the generators far below us.
“Just a glitch.” My mother’s confident voice said the moment the light came back on. I blinked in its harshness. “And today you’ll have your chance to show everyone just how perfect you are.”
I gave her a quick smile, although my stomach clenched. Today I would give up my childhood for ever. Today I would be judged, and I just had to hope I would not be found wanting. I felt a strong hand under my chin and my mother tilted my face up to hers. The tenderness that she had shown when she brushed my hair had disappeared.
“Show them your strength, Lisanne, and you will have nothing to worry about.” I pulled away from her grip and forced my face into a confident smile.
“Of course mother.”
“Let’s go get breakfast, you can’t have your interview on an empty stomach.”
As soon as we entered the canteen I knew that something was wrong. Whispers ran around the room like a virus, each person running to another group to spread the word. I wanted to ask someone what was happening but my mother touched my arm.
“Eighties do not engage in idle gossip,” she said, but her eyes flickered with interest just as mine did. We ate our food in silence while the room pulsed with talk around us. I felt hot pangs of anger at my mother, but I knew there was no point in arguing with her. I would just have to wait.
When my mother walked over to talk to a man from her office, I finally plucked up the courage to ask someone and sidled over to an old friend.
“Didn’t you hear already? I thought everyone knew.” Bright Honey wouldn’t normally have talked so boldly to a high rank like me. But today was different.
“It’s a Walker.”
I couldn’t believe it, but the pale, shocked faces around me showed that it was true. Someone had Walked. My first thought was this would delay my interview, but then I shook myself, appalled at how selfish I was. A Walker affected us all, it was like an open wound in the heart of the city.
The last Walker had been two years ago, but I remembered it like yesterday. I had run all the way home from school to find that my father was already home. He sat at the kitchen table, poking a box meal with a fork but not eating any. I gave him a hug and I hid my tears in his chest.
“You’ve heard then. Come on, let’s have some tea.” He took down two cups and made some tea from his private stash. It was hidden on top of the cupboard where mother couldn’t see it. She didn’t approve of the black market but father said that sometimes it was necessary for the odd treat. That day the tea didn’t really feel like a treat. It felt like trying to put a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.
“The Walker, it was Angel Sam’s dad,” I whispered.
“Angel Sam?” My father frowned.
“The boy in my class. The sixty. The one that mother said I wasn’t to sit beside.”
“Oh yes. Him.”
The tea was bitter but warm and I shut my eyes and breathed in the steam. I didn’t understand the Walkers. It was suicide, as simple as that. How could you just decide to go out into the White, never to come back? Out into that endless cold…
“Why do they do it?”
My father paused for a moment, then looked down into his cup.
“You are too young to understand. There is no temptation when you’re young, but when you’re older…Well, the White is always there and sometimes it calls to you.”
The tone in his voice frightened me and I was glad when he stopped talking when my mother entered the room. She avoided the subject all together. Instead she talked about her work, asked me about school and made me start my homework. But even she could not hide the brittle edge in her voice and after I went to bed I could hear my parents whispering in the darkness.
I looked at Bright Honey and saw the same fear in her eyes that had been in my father’s that day.
“Who was it?” I asked.
“The Physician. Just a few hours ago.” Bright Honey shook her head so hard that her white-blond hair flew around her like a halo.
The Physician! I stared at Bright Honey but couldn’t find any words to say. There were several doctors in the city, but only the head was known by the name Physician. He was the heart of our world. How could he have Walked?
“He didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t turn up for work this morning and one of the nurses went to look for him. He took a suit and some supplies and just… Walked.” Bright Honey’s cheeks were flushed with excitement. I felt a tingle in my own chest. Not much happened to break the routine in the city, so even a dreadful event like this held a thrill.
“And no one knew he had gone,” I muttered. It was so sad: imagine no one else noticing you had taken the walk to your death. I was glad that the same would not be true for me. Not that I would ever walk up onto the frozen White anyway.
I was about to leave the canteen to head to my interview when a crackling noise made us all look to the view screen. The Leader had decided to make one of his rare announcements. Every head in the room turned round to peer at the imposing figure on screen. The Leader was shown from the waist up, seated in front of a large picture of the Vitruvian. The lighting flattened out his features, so that he looked both handsome and strange, like some sort of powerful doll. I stood up to see better but my mother pulled me down sharply. She seemed more tense than usual, and her eyes were ringed by dark circles. I quickly turned back to the screen.
“You will all have heard our sad news.” The voice boomed out from the speakers. “The Physician left us yesterday, and like all of you I am pained by his loss.” The Leader’s mouth turned down a little, but his eyes stayed the same, hard and piercing. “We have already appointed a new chief medic, so there is no reason to be concerned. There will be no break in service.” He paused, and we dutifully applauded. There was probably no one with authority in the canteen, but it was important to always show loyalty.
“I have chosen to speak to you today as I am saddened by the Physician’s loss, but I am also angered.” There was a surprised mutter in the room. “I am angered at the waste of his life. This Walker was weak; he gave up what was most precious and for nothing more than oblivion. Our community cannot continue on a weak foundation; we must focus on our strengths.”
“Consider your history. Only by knowing what we were can we understand what we are now. A thousand years ago our fathers and mothers created this sanctuary to protect us from the White. We owe a debt, not just to them, but to ourselves, and to our children. If we allow this fear into our hearts, then we might as well all join him out on the ice.”
Was it just me that thought there was an edge of threat to his words? The speaker’s expression, caring but stern, never changed.
“From the moment we are born we begin to learn our histories. You have learned that in every age of man we have destroyed one another through war. Every age until our own. Since the City was built we have seen no war, men no longer kill each other in anger. Our system works, it protects us, it leads us away from temptation, out of the path of evil.”
I let my eyes roam around the room, knowing how the speech would continue. I couldn’t help but think that the Leader had not answered the real question - why had the Physician done it? Why did any of them do it? But then the speaker went on to a familiar subject.
“A great storm came and the ice began to creep. It crept over our world until there was nothing left. Oblivion.” The leader paused for effect and I leaned forward, drawn in despite myself. “But our ancestors refused to go quietly into the cold. They built our home far beneath the ice and snow, and kept us warm. They had the foresight to provide for us, imagining our every need. And since then generations of brave men and women have worked together to keep our city alive. I will not let anything happen to it.” He beamed a smile out across the screen, and some people even cheered.
“We must remember our principles: Food, Shelter, Warmth. Forever unchanged. Remember.” I saw my mother mouth along with these familiar words, as did most people in the room. For some reason, I kept my mouth shut.
“These values have helped us to survive all these years, and they will ensure our future. History tells us that every so often someone will Walk, someone will abandon us. But it also tells us that these desertions make us stronger.”
“I blame myself for the Walker,” the leader shook his head sadly. There were angry exclamations in the room and I heard my mother gasp in horror. “But I make my promise to you now that I will protect you all. You are all my children, and I will not let the White take you.”
I fixed my face into a smile and applauded with everyone else. Was it wrong that I found the leader’s speeches boring and predictable? My mother had genuine tears falling down her face, but I couldn’t help but feel that that showed her weakness, not her strength.
“It’s nearly time, Lisanne.” My mother said and reached over and squeezed my hand before pulling hers back as quickly as she could. Was it my upcoming Interview or the Leader’s words that had made her soften? As people began to file out of the canteen I turned my mind back to the day’s task. One interview, one moment to decide the rest of my life. I told myself that even an assistant Historian in the archives would be okay, but really I knew that I would be a little disappointed. What I really wanted, what I had not dared mention even to my best friends, was to be right in the heart of things, working in the Leader’s office. Hardly anyone got to see the Leader apart from on the screen, so to work there would be an incredible achievement. Historical was the key though. That was where all the high graders went. I would follow in the footsteps of my mother, the best Historian of her time.
“Sit down please Lisanne”
I sat down in front of the interviewer and crossed my legs. The pale little woman clicked away on her keyboard for a while. I stared around the office. What a miserable place to spend your days. The metal struts were bare in the wall, not like the smooth white wall-coverings of my home. On the woman’s desk were pictures of what were presumably her children: squat, large eyed little creatures, probably sixties at best. Be charitable, I reminded myself, she couldn’t help how she was born.
“Do you have all your documentation?”
“It should be on the system,” I replied. I had of course checked a thousand times that everything had been sent through the net, but I still felt a little tremor of nerves.
The fingers tapped for another few seconds. “I have them here.” I tried to give my best, most confident smile, but the woman’s robotic manner was starting to irritate me. She hadn’t even said hello, just typed away at the machine. My mother had often told me how envious some of the lower grades could be, but I had rarely experienced someone so open in their dislike.
“Confirm your final year grades for me?”
“History: A, Science: A, Language: A, Statistics: B.”
“Was that a B for Statistics?” the woman asked, and I was sure I hadn’t imagined the sneer that time.
“Yes” I said, and I felt the start of a blush rise up my cheeks. I remembered bringing home my results, the pride that I had felt in coming top of the year instantly dented with one glance at my mother’s face when she had seen the B grade. I resented the question from a woman who had probably barely passed anything, if her current job as a number cruncher was anything to go by.
“And I have your parents’ records here.”
This at least I had no reason to worry about. My parents’ achievements could not have been more impeccable. My mother was the Head Historian, probably the most important person in the city next to the Leader, and my father was a scientist, specialising in medical research and psychology. I could have never turned up to a single lesson and my future would still have been assured.
“It will take a few moments for the computer to run the programme.” If the assistant had been friendlier I would have tried to make small talk, but instead we both stared at the bare walls of the office.
The computer beeped and the women leaned forward, a strange expression on her face.
“Congratulations Lisanne. You have been chosen to be a Technician.”
The world seemed to screech to a halt. My mouth opened but I couldn’t make any words come out. Had she really just said technician? They were sending me to Tech!
“You will report to the Technology Room after breakfast on Monday. Tardiness will not be permitted. You will take home forty-seven tickets a week. This will be paid…” Her voice droned on and on, like she was reading from a script. In fact, as her face was fixed on the screen in front of her, that was exactly what she was doing.
I felt the blush start from her chest and rush up to her cheeks. It felt like my heart had exploded.
"But my mother was a Historian. So was her mother. Do you know who my grandfather was?"
"According to our analysis you are better suited for life as a Tech." The woman’s voice droned on evenly. I grabbed the desk in front of me, I was feeling dizzy on top of everything else. I breathed slowly in and out to try to calm my mind, but it wasn’t working.
“I don’t want to be a Tech.” I whispered.
“A Tech is a very important job! Many people would love to be in your position.”
The administrator’s cheeks were also flushed now and her ample chest trembled with suppressed rage. I had questioned the system, and that was not allowed. But I couldn’t help it. Even though I knew it was futile I needed the woman to change her mind.
"But I’m an eighty!" I cried as hot tears threatened to drop from my eyes.
The woman smiled across her fat cheeks.
"Breeding isn’t everything darling."
That was practically a heresy! But I wasn’t about to give the woman the satisfaction of showing my shock. Something in me finally accepted that I was wasting my time. I did not argue any more. Instead I calmly and deliberately gathered up my papers and left the room without another world.
It wasn’t until the door closed behind me that I started to worry about what my mother would say.
Chapter 2: Kyrk
I pushed against the heavy stone door until it opened a crack and the glare of the White crept in. I let my fingers play in the light stream and watched as the tiny ice particles floated against my fur. I heard a sound behind me and pushed it closed once more.
“Is it time yet?” My brother Jony hopped back and forth and tried to get past. I bared my teeth at him and he backed up a little.
“Not yet. Have you checked the supplies?”
“Well, check again.”
I watched him scurry back to the cooking fire in a sulk. I ran my fingers over my face and leaned my back against the door. Almost a year since our parents had died and I still struggled to replace them. I knew that Jony missed the fun big brother he had once known, but I had too much to worry about now to be that almost forgotten person.
I picked up my own pack to check its contents, but dropped it back down on the floor. What was the point – I had checked three times already, nothing was missing. We were as prepared as we could ever be. A quick glance behind me showed that Jony wasn’t following so I pushed the door open and stepped out of the cave into the White.
I relished the feeling of the outside. First I felt my skin tingle at the sudden drop in temperature and my lungs gasp as the icy air filled them. My eyes narrowed and I strained to keep them open in the bright light. Everything was White. The scene before me was cold, empty and deadly. Just as it should be. In spite of everything, I felt elated at the thought of escaping the cave, of feeling my limbs move again as they were supposed to. We had been cooped up too long.
The wind whipped some fresh snow into my face and I cleared it away. The gesture reminded me of one of my parents, I couldn’t even remember which it had been, gently brushing the snow from my eyes on last year’s pilgrimage. A larger, stronger hand had held my own. Then I had been the child: how different I felt now.
I turned my mind back to the journey and examined the clouds. They were full and white and promised of snow later. But when I held my right hand in front of me the wind was gentle, and barely rippled my fur, so it would be a good day for the walk. A little snow was nothing to fear.
Less apprehensive, I went back inside. I could hear shouts from the back of the cave where Jony was no doubt tormenting our younger sister. Mya could give as good as she got of course, hissing back insults that hurt more than Jon’s kicks and punches. Sometimes I wondered if they liked each other at all. As they had been ever since our parents died, tempers were short.
I sat down on my pack and closed my eyes to think. We had to go to the Meet. It was the one rule that could never be broken. No matter how far we travel my people have to return to our base once a year. We must be counted, be accounted for as my father used to say when he was feeling particularly aggrieved at making the long trip. So every year as the snow storms lessen and the winds ease we make our way home. This year it was my job to take us back safely. It would not be easy.
But there was no excuse to skip the Meet, even though I dreaded it more than the journey itself. It is the nature of our people to seek solitude, my mother once explained to me. But there are certain necessities that can only be conducted with others. She smiled at my father then and he laughed at her and although I was only a child I knew that they meant sex, sex and babies and the continuation of our race. I thought of my blushes two years ago as a pretty girl passed me a sip of moonshine while our parents weren’t looking, the stolen kisses last year behind a convenient wall. There would be no room this year for fun and flirting.
“I don’t want to go,” a small voice said beside me. I swept Mya up into my arms.
“Me neither,” I whispered into her soft furry ear. I held her close for a moment then set her down.
“Sooner we get going, sooner it’ll be over. Go get your brother. The White won’t wait.”
I checked through Mya and Jon’s packs one last time. They carried only as much food and water as they would need for the two day trek. I took the animal skin that would form our sleeping tent, along with my own supplies and some precious items for trade.
Last of all I reached for my father’s hunting knife that I had left on the table, its dark metal shining at me in the torchlight. Unlike others I had seen, the knife was not engraved, nor did it come in an embroidered sheath. It was simply tied across the chest with a leather strap. I knotted it carefully and it nestled against my fur. Mya and Jony watched me pat it gently and said nothing, but their faces were suddenly grim.
Like all Hunters, the kids understood the importance of the knife. Its weight was both a burden and a comfort on my chest. My clan were Hunters, and the knife was the tool of our trade as well as the symbol of our clan. Our role was not so much to look for food, apart from what we needed for ourselves: the massive deer herds near the City provided that. We were there to capture and kill, to provide precious commodities that could not be gained from deer. We were also the last defence against some of the stranger beasts of the White.
It was the most dangerous role of any Clan. We kept other people safe, but sometimes we died. When my parents had died and the Clan members came to visit us it wasn’t their pity that angered me. It was their acceptance. Their knowledge that death was just part of the job. Nothing remarkable. Except for three terrified children who had just lost their parents.
I hated the clan then. But now, in taking up the knife, in forcing my brother and sister out into the White, I was proclaiming myself one of them. One of us. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Maybe it would be nice to be part of something after feeling alone for so long. I would see for sure at the Meet.
“Time to go.” I called as the sun rose higher in the sky and we were close to missing our chance. I couldn’t put it off any longer. Mya and Jony ran up to my side. They looked more excited than scared and I felt proud of what my little brother and sister had achieved. It would not be an easy journey, but neither of them made a fuss. They were helping me to cope as the parent, and I felt a flutter in my stomach that told me how much I needed their help. Like I had done for much of the last year I felt that fear of failure, the sense of walking on ice, always on the edge of a precipice. But we had made it this far, so there was hope, however slim.
We braced ourselves and set off into the White. I heard a sound and tensed, ready for action, only to realise it was Mya whooping with excitement.
“Wheeee!” she cried as she ran off across the snow. Jony looked at me for a second then he was off, screeching like his sister and running alongside. I should have told them to slow down, but the pace would drop soon enough and I couldn’t bear to stop them. It was as if a year of sadness and regret was dropping off them as they ran out into the snow.
The kids settled down soon enough and we began our trek across the White. At first I found it frustrating to slow my pace to match there’s. I was used to hunting alone, just me and the White, and then I would travel as fast as my legs could carry me. But at least I could appreciate the landscape around me. The White was as beautiful as it was deadly. The winds carved the snow into beautiful structures that towered over us. Deep patches of snow might conceal a crevasse where the unwary could find his feet fall away underneath him, only to meet death at the bottom of a deep hole.
The cold preserves as it kills, and more than once we walked past the corpse of a wild deer that had been caught in the snow. Whenever we came to one of these haunting figures, legs half buried in the drifts I hurried the children forward. I didn’t want them to think that it could have been us, trapped and frozen to death. It was my job to worry about that.
I’m not a Digger, so I don’t know much about what lurks under the ice, but we would not be the first Hunters to fall through a crevasse into a frozen river, or be carried away on a lead – the gap between two ice floes. Often people merely disappear, go out on a hunt and never return. There are legends about what happens to them – perhaps they are taken by the White bears that no one has seen for centuries. More likely they just fell and never got back up.
“Time to stop,” I called when the sun began to dip below the snow. The kids were exhausted and dropped to the floor, but I felt elated. We were half way there and we had made better time than I thought.
I piled the snow quickly with my hands to make a windbreak and then got the kids to lie curled together. I curled my body around them and pulled a large fur over the top of us, so that it covered us snugly. We were bred so that we could survive a night even without a fur, but there was no harm in a little bit of comfort.
I waited until Mya and Jon’s breathing had steadied into sleep before I allowed my own eyes to shut. I knew there were no dangerous beasts here, and my Hunter’s ears would hear any that tried to approach, but I was still uneasy. As I began to drift off I curled my arms around Mya’s warm furry body. It was hard to believe that only a few centuries ago humans had no fur at all. Hairless like babies, if the old stories were to be believed. I closed my eyes and wondered what they might have been like.
We were up with the sun and walked at a good pace. It was late in the day before we saw anyone else heading for the Meet. Their short, smooth fur and slight bodies with long delicate fingers marked them out as Doctors. The group of Doctors came from the West. They seemed to be a few family groups who travelled together. Unlike Hunters, Doctors tend to move in large groups. They are small and their bodies are more fragile than most of our race. They are known for intelligence, not for strength. They are dangerously clever though, and should never be underestimated.
“Let’s walk this way and intercept them,” I called to the kids who walked just behind me. “Could be a chance for an early trade.”
I have always been a little afraid of the Doctors with their strange medicines. I remember when she was pregnant with Mya my mother had asked for a Doctor to come and see her. The old woman arrived with a small sack of unfamiliar tools and took my mother into the other room. She had announced that there was nothing to worry about, but that she would stay for the birth.
The doctor stayed for a week. She smelled of the pungent herbs grown in the doctor’s compound and her eyes were too sharp and followed me around the cave. I knew how clever doctors were, and I couldn’t help feeling dull and slow in her presence. She never said anything, but sometimes I would catch her looking at the way we ate, or the way our cave was full of animal skins and teeth and I could feel her judging us. It made me angry, but also strangely ashamed.
My father told me not to be afraid of the doctors. “They are just another clan, and every clan has their secrets. They are no more magical than you or I.”
When the time came for mother to give birth, the strange noises and squeals of pain that came from the room at the back of the cave made me fear even more. Even when the doctor finally emerged and passed tiny Mya to my proud father, I was still afraid. Not until I saw my mother, tired and worn but alive, did my fears ease a little.
But still, I thought as I watched the figures grow ever closer, there was something frightening about them with their power to give life or death.
“Stay close,” I called to the children, keeping my voice calm. Before long the Doctors were just to our right. I called a greeting and waved. A man at the back of the group turned round, but did not wave back. I changed the angle of our walk so that we would intercept them.
“I have trade.” I called out and reached for my bag. It was often better to trade on the way to the Meet as there was less competition, and most clans would take the opportunity to cut out the middle man.
“We want no trade from you.” The young man who spoke had a deep voice that boomed across the ice. He was broad for a Doctor, with a good layer of fat over his muscle. He was nearly a foot shorter than me so I wasn’t worried about a fight, but I was taken aback by the force of his words. He seemed angry even at the suggestion.
“But I have some unusual items...” I reached into the bottom of the bag for the wolf teeth that the Doctors prized. The man stepped towards me.
“Take your hand out of that bag.” He said, his face set in an angry frown. He had a stripe of light brown fur that made his face look lopsided.
I pushed Jony and Mya behind me.
“What’s the problem here?”
“I said, take your hand out of the bag and give it to me.”
I shook my head. Everything we had of value was in that bag, there was no way I was going to hand it over. The rest of the clan began to surround us. I could feel my claws tense. I tried another tack.
“I only asked for trade. If you are not interested, that’s fine. There are plenty who will be at the Meet.”
The man took another step forward but stopped as an older woman placed his hand on his arm.
“We are in a hurry, I’m afraid. You can make your trades with the clans at the Meet.” The old woman said, her tone cold but not threatening. The young Doctor looked annoyed, but I was glad of the interruption. I was within my right to challenge the Doctors about their rudeness, but I was in no mood to continue the conversation. If the kids had not been there I might have given him a taste of Hunter strength. As it was I merely turned away without another word.